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By Jim Teeple
Jerusalem
09 January 2008

President Bush on Thursday will hold an early morning meeting with the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - the man who served as Mr. Bush's host on his first visit to Israel 10 years ago when he was the Governor of Texas. VOA's Jim Teeple reports that two years after Mr. Sharon suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma, his absence is keenly felt in Israel.

Ariel Sharon (file photo)
Ariel Sharon (file photo)
Tucked away in Mr. Bush's hectic schedule during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories is a note saying he would have a private visit with Gilad and Omri Sharon, Ariel Sharon's two sons. It is a reminder, if one is needed, of the extraordinarily close personal relationship between the two men.

Nearly 10 years ago when Mr. Bush first visited Israel, it was Ariel Sharon, then foreign minister, who showed him around. Raanan Gissin, a close aide to the former prime minister, says the two men formed an instant bond.

"I would say it was a relationship that goes beyond words," said Gissin. "How should I put it, like two farmers, two cowboys, ranchers, and there were things among them that they understood about each other without talking."

U.S. President George W. Bush and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (l) walk through a bed of bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas (Apr 2005 file photo)
U.S. President George W. Bush and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (l) walk through a bed of bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas (Apr 2005 file photo)
After he became president, one of the first people to pay a personal visit to Mr. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas was Ariel Sharon. The two men spent hours discussing a variety of topics, but both said what they really enjoyed talking about was farming and ranching.

Two years ago, Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke.

He was at his farm in the Negev Desert when he began experiencing stroke symptoms. He had suffered a mild stroke one month earlier, but this one was massive. By the time he was wheeled into the emergency room at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, Mr. Sharon was in a coma.

Now, two years later, he lies in a hospital outside Tel Aviv, connected to a feeding tube in what a hospital statement recently described as a deep coma.

Hours before his stroke in his last public comments, Mr. Sharon said he planned to form a new government and push ahead with disengagement from Palestinian areas.

Mr. Sharon said the disengagement that he had carried out from the Gaza Strip had been a success and that it was a model he would carry forward.

Ehud Olmert looks on during cabinet meeting, 25 Sep 2007
Ehud Olmert (file photo)
Just weeks earlier, Ariel Sharon had left the right-wing Likud Party and formed a new centrist party he called Kadima. He said his goal was to draw Israel's final border with the Palestinians, a task now left to his successor, Ehud Olmert, who succeeded him as Kadima's leader and as prime minister.

Mr. Olmert's tenure has been rocky. His conduct during Israel's war in Lebanon is under official review, and could end his political career within weeks or months. He presides over a government made up of an uneasy coalition of politicians -- many of whom say they do not support his pledge to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians by the end of this year.

Raanan Gissin says Ariel Sharon had his enemies - he was disliked by many Israelis - and he was hated by Palestinians. But Gissin says Ariel Sharon offered Israelis a rare commodity: peace of mind.

"Sharon enjoyed a very rare commodity in politics: trust," said Gissin. "And that trust has never waned, even when his chips were down and his popularity was very low. I think that is what the people of Israel today crave for - not peace - they know peace is a long way away - but someone that can instill in them peace of mind."

Ariel Sharon's two sons visit him almost every day although they said they did not mark the anniversary of his massive stroke. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv, Omri Sharon said the only anniversary he will mark will be when his father rises from his bed. And the topic of conversation with Mr. Bush? That will be farming.

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